Alpine Pony Tracks

Restar Mountain Shelley III on track

Shelley on track

For many years after I moved to the high mountains of Colorado, my pony herd included numerous youngsters.  During the winter they would lead the rest of the herd on romps around their paddocks, giving everyone some exercise.  More recently, my herd has aged, and they haven’t been moving as much.  When the ponies are on pasture, they get plenty of movement just by the nature of grazing.  But for the majority of the year they are not on pasture.  Because movement is so important to equine health, I’ve been investigating ways to get them more exercise. Track systems look interesting,  as popularized by Jaime Jackson’s Paddock Paradise and as used by Joe Camp of Soul of a Horse fame.

So far, my particular situation has not shown up in examples of track systems, so I’m still pondering how to proceed.  For instance, I must deal with deep snow in winter.  In addition, I have stallions, and I want the track system to be useful for them as well as for less management-challenging members of the herd.  And then there are the moose to contend with.  Many track systems utilize electric fence on step-in posts.  My experience with moose and electric fence with step-in posts so far is that while moose are certainly able to jump, they prefer to walk through electric fence if it allows them to.  They will respect high tensile wire, but it requires solid corner posts, not step-ins, and in our rocky ground, setting a single post for this sort of fence can sometimes be a multi-hour job.  So I’m still pondering how to proceed.

I have, however, been able to answer one question by implementing a track system of sorts in our alpine environment.  The idea of a track system is to encourage movement by spreading out feeding and moving feeding areas as far from water and minerals and shelter as possible so the equines have to move from one to the other frequently during the day.  Fencing is typically used to restrict travel to the longest possible route between places of interest.  An exterior fence line is often supplemented by an interior one close beside it, creating a ‘track’ similar to a race track, hence the label ‘track system.’  (There are of course many more details involved in creating a true track system.)

In the winter, my ponies don’t use their entire paddocks because of deep snow.  Of course by not using their entire paddocks, they’re not moving as much, which is the problem I’m trying to solve.  I began by spreading their hay out further than usual, until I hit on the idea of actually spreading it along the exterior fence of the paddock.  Yes, it was work for me to walk the first time through the deep snow, but, lo and behold, after the first day, a track was installed!  The ponies packed the snow into a navigable path that they now keep open because I keep spreading their hay along it.

One question I had about track systems was how far apart the fences should be for herds who have constant pushing matches when hay is present.  The fences need to be far enough apart to let ponies pass each other on the track to get to the next pile of hay without getting kicked or pushed into the fence.  In my research, ten to twelve feet was given as a typical track width, but that seemed awfully narrow to me when I thought about ponies getting pushed around.  By spreading the hay through deep snow and watching the pattern of packing of snow, I learned that indeed twelve feet was about the width needed.

When there is less pushing and jostling in a herd, the track stays about three feet wide through the snow with occasional ‘passing lanes’ of the same width.  Only occasionally is there a ‘cut-across’ traversing the paddock from one side to the other through the deep snow.  Instead the ponies go around and around, just as people with conventional tracks observe.  And just as people with conventional tracks have stated, it is incredibly satisfying to see the ponies using the track.  They are more fit and have better attitudes.  They even seem to prefer being fed ‘on track’ rather than the old way, which I admit to reverting to when I am in a hurry or too tired to walk the track myself spreading hay.

We have just passed mid-winter, so I have several more months to ponder how to implement a track system on open ground.  My experience so far suggests that erecting a step-in electric fence inside my largest paddocks might work since the moose have already learned they aren’t welcome there.  I will continue to look for inspiration from other people’s experience, though it may turn out, as so often happens in my life, that my ponies can help me find the right answer again!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

Book The Partnered PonyPractical considerations like track systems fill an entire section in my book The Partnered Pony, available internationally on Amazon and by clicking here where author royalties are higher.

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

Pack Horse Bridges 2

Rosgill BridgeBecause of my interest in the working heritage of ponies in general and of Fell Ponies in particular, the packhorse bridges of Cumbria fascinate me.  Pack horses were the principal transport for trade goods in Cumbria beginning in the 1400s and continuing into the 19th century before roads made them obsolete.  (1)  (While they are commonly referred to as pack ‘horses,’ they were usually 14hh or smaller, so were ‘ponies’ by our modern definition.)  The terrain of Cumbria, especially the Lake District, is rugged and has lots of watercourses, making fords largely impossible and bridges necessary.  A map of England’s packhorse bridges shows the highest density in Cumbria, likely both because road building came to the area late and the more challenging terrain required more bridges.

Given my fascination with Cumbria’s packhorse bridges, I guess it’s no surprise that self control was totally lacking when an email arrived asking me about a particular bridge.  The bridge in question was in a photograph I’d been given several years ago.  At the time I labeled it Hardknott Pass, but when my inquirer asked about its specific location, some research was required.  I dug back into my archives to find the original email and discovered the bridge’s name was actually Jubilee Bridge.  That appeased my inquirer but left me puzzled.

I was puzzled because I’d done extensive research a few months before on packhorse bridges in Cumbria, and Jubilee Bridge hadn’t surfaced, either by name or location.  The three books I have on packhorse bridges all have different collections of bridges described between their covers, and a map devoted to packhorse bridges has an even different set, so I knew that there was no such thing as an authoritative list.

When we traveled to Cumbria in 2015, I saw an opportunity to indulge my interest in pack horse bridges.  I began by creating a composite list of bridges from all my sources.  It was of great use because I could pull it out and determine which bridge was close enough to our day’s activities to warrant a detour to see it.  (Click here to see one that we didn’t get a chance to hunt down because it has a reputation for being hard to find despite a relatively convenient location.)  My list was also put to use when I laid out a pack pony trip that we took on an historic pack horse route including over a pack horse bridge.

Belted Galloway cattleWhat I didn’t know when I compiled my list was that there were more possible packhorse bridges in Cumbria than even appeared in all the sources I had on hand.  Jubilee Bridge is one example.  Another we happily discovered in the process of visiting a documented bridge and desiring not to engage with a herd of Belted Galloway cattle on one approach.  Approaching the bridge from the other direction took us across a bridge not on my list.  I later discovered a cryptic reference to the undocumented bridge in one book but it still wasn’t named so not listed anywhere.

The most intriguing bridge that I ran across in my research was Mardale.  I couldn’t find it on any map, so I was grateful when a friend told me about the village of Mardale being flooded by Haweswater Reservoir in the 1940s (click here to see the remains of the village that emerged when the water level in the reservoir dropped during a drought in 1984.)  There may have been as many as three pack horse bridges flooded beneath the reservoir.  (3)

There are two bridges here; the closer one is of interest.

There are two bridges here; the closer one is of interest.

We ended up visiting just five of the nearly fifty bridges that are currently in my researched list.  Perhaps over time even more will be added, like Jubilee Bridge.  The unseen ones will warrant detours, should we ever find ourselves in Cumbria again, and in the mean time, tips about new ones will, like the email inquiry, no doubt cause distractions from any current task at hand.  All the time I’ll be imagining heavily laden ponies passing along the route hard at work.

I’m grateful to Sue Millard for pointing me to the picture of Gaisgill Bridge and to Eddie McDonough for kindling my fascination with pack horse bridges.

  1. ‘TRANSPORT SAGA. 1646 – 1947’ as referenced at http://archive.oneguyfrombarlick.co.uk/forum_topicfa9b.html
  2. See for instance Map #2 in Hinchcliffe, Ernest, A Guide to the Packhorse Bridges of England, A Cicerone Guide, Milnthorpe, Cumbria, 1994, p. 19.
  3. I’ve seen the names Arnold, Measand, and Chapel Bridges associated with Mardale, though they may not have all been pack horse bridges.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

Book Fell Pony ObservationsMany of my inquiries into the Fell Pony’s history can be found in the book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available on internationally on Amazon.com and by clicking here where author royalties are higher.  

Book The Partnered PonyFor more on the diverse work that ponies are capable of doing, you’ll find of interest the book The Partnered Pony:  What’s Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, available internationally on Amazon.com and by clicking here where author royalties are higher.

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

Thank You, Commanche

It wasn’t until I got my second Fell Pony stallion and my fourth Fell Pony mare that I realized I owed Commanche some thanks.  Commanche was the first pony stallion I ever met.  My heart went out to his owner Patricia Burge when she called me to say she’d sent her second pony stallion friend over the rainbow bridge in as many months.  Sometimes life doesn’t seem fair.

Guards Apollo doing his jobCommanche was a Shetland stallion and on the small side for the breed.  For many years Commanche’s stud fees paid for the feed for all of Pat’s pony herd, even though he got very little of the feed himself.  He often served mares taller than he was, and Pat shared the various tricks she used to enable Commanche to perform his service.

My second Fell Pony stallion takes after a famous ancestor, Tebay Campbellton Victor, a proper Fell Pony in every way but small in height.  My fourth Fell Pony mare stands at 13.3hh, above the breed average by an inch.  Prior to getting my fourth mare, I had always pasture-bred, letting the ponies work out the logistics themselves.  When I first put my second stallion and fourth mare together, though, it was clear their height difference was going to make completion of the breeding act challenging.  I learned to put the mare on an incline facing downhill, so that the stallion could gain a few inches in height.  I’ve since brought other taller mares in that require me to similarly manipulate the breeding act.  I wouldn’t have immediately known how to ensure success had it not been for meeting Commanche.

Commanche and TugboatIn my book The Partnered Pony, Commanche appears in a few stories.  He sometimes worked in harness with his good friend and paddock mate Tugboat, and Pat tells about their glee on some outings.  Pat also relates a story about Commanche and her Fell Pony Danny.  It must have been something to see these two pony stallions interacting.  For Pat to have lost them both so close in time to each other leaves a void that her other ponies will only be able to fill with the passage of time.

When I was beginning my pony journey, Pat and her husband Dick generously shared of their time and experience.  I didn’t know then what great insight I was getting into managing my future pony breeding stock.  It is obvious now that it’s because of Commanche that many of my Fell Pony foals were even born.  Thank you, Commanche, and rest in peace.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

Book The Partnered PonyThe book The Partnered Pony:  What’s Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines is available on Amazon.com and internationally (with better royalties for the author :-)) by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies, Partnered Pony (TM)

Driving Pony Bitting Advice

Mya the Wonder PonyCarriage driving expert Muffy Seaton did a terrific series on “Bitting the Driving Horse” in Driving Digest magazine.  (1)  I highly recommend these articles to anyone curious about this topic.  Muffy often drives ponies, breeds driving ponies, and is considered by some to have facilitated the advancement of ponies in combined driving.(2)  Because of her association with ponies, I keep an eye out for anything she writes.  In this series of articles, I wasn’t disappointed because embedded in the series content, there were a number of pointers particular to ponies.

First, an important caveat.  Bits are not tools for control.  They are tools for communication.  Used incorrectly, bits can inflict pain which makes productive communication impossible.  Used correctly, they can enhance our partnership with our ponies since they are an intimate and only physical connection when we drive.  In Seaton’s words, the right bit “might make the difference in subtle ways to achieve a happier and more willing driving partner.”  (3)  It is through our partnership with our ponies that we control them, not the piece of hardware in their mouths.  We should strive always to be worthy of putting that hardware in such a sensitive place.

Seaton begins her series discussing bridles since they are necessary to hold bits in place.  Because ponies’ heads vary significantly in size and shape, Seaton prefers open buckles on cheek pieces since they allow for more adjustment.  Seaton also notes that some ponies have small ears so she likes a gullet strap on her bridles as extra security to prevent a pony from shaking a bridle off.

Regarding bits, Seaton begins with an important but sometimes not obvious point.  “Just because a bit came with your harness or is pretty does not mean it’s the right bit for your horse.”  (4)  In my experience, single jointed snaffles are the most common bit to come with harness.  Seaton says that many ponies (and Morgans and minis) have fat tongues and low palates that cause the joint of these bits to stick up into the roof of the mouth and be painful.  Seaton prefers to start an equine on a French link double-jointed mouthpiece to avoid this problem (and others.)

Seaton has used a Dutch gag bit with success “with a few Haflingers and drafts that have been so pulled on with solid bar bits they have become pretty numb…” (5)  Seaton emphasizes that “a bit change is fine-tuning….  Remember we are trying to make our horses comfortable in their mouths so they will be willing to listen to our attempts to communicate to them through our hands and reins, so before you try a bit, think about how it works and what nerves it will press on with your horse.” (6)  Her articles are a great place to start this thinking.

I appreciate that Seaton closed her series saying she lets the individual equine choose the bit they prefer.  “If he’s not comfortable in the first place, he’s not going to be willing to receive my communications.”  (7)

  1. “Bitting the Driving Horse: Part 1” about bridles and mouth piece fitting is in Issue 188 of Driving Digest, March/April 2014.  “Bitting the Driving Horse:  Part 2” about solid bar mouth pieces is in Driving Digest Issue 189, May/June 2014.  “Bitting the Driving Horse:  Part 3” about moveable mouthpieces is in Issue 190, July/August 2014.
  2. Hoyt, Sandra. “Small Ponies are Revving Up Combined Driving!”, Driving Digest issue 199, January/February 2016, p. 38.
  3. Seaton, Muffy. “Bitting the Driving Horse:  Part 2”, Driving Digest issue 189, p. 18.
  4. Same as #3, p. 21.
  5. Seaton, Muffy. “Bitting the Driving Horse:  Part 3”, Driving Digest issue 1990, p. 17.
  6. Same as #5.
  7. Same as #5

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

Book The Partnered PonyFor more practical information about working with ponies, buy the book The Partnered Pony:  What’s Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, available internationally on Amazon and by clicking here.

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

A Miracle Pony

Mya the Wonder Pony is featured in my latest book The Partnered Pony.  Her ‘surname’ derives not because she is a registered purebred.  She isn’t.  I have no idea where she was born or who her parents were.  She got her surname because she earned it.  I just kept asking her to do things, and she did them so well that I just kept asking for more.

Mya the Wonder PonyIn the book there are stories about moving water and firewood and manure and about skidding fence poles while ridden and about moving brush on logging jobs and about herding cattle.  She’s packed holiday greens and chainsaws and fence posts.  She once placed third in a driving obstacle course competition.  One story in the book describes how on one particular job for our company, she was ridden, she skid fence poles, and she packed buck legs, illustrating just what ponies are good for:  lots of different things!

I received an email from a reader who was astonished that Mya once helped me move a rattlesnake.  The reader felt Mya’s surname wasn’t nearly complimentary enough and that instead she was a miracle pony.

After I received the email I happened on a quote from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:  “The real miracle is not to walk on water or in thin air but to walk on Earth.”  Thought of in this way, Mya is definitely a miracle pony.  She walks on earth with a calm confidence that makes me envious.  She is so quietly honest and grounded that she has remained my favorite pony despite being my first and having nearly two dozen others come through my life since I bought her.  We’ve been together too long for me to change her name now, but she has certainly earned the moniker Miracle Pony.  I hope we have many more years together in which I can continue to watch her walk on Earth.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

The Partnered PonyThe book The Partnered Pony is available internationally on Amazon or by clicking here.

Posted in Partnered Pony (TM), Work Ponies

Showing What She Can Do

Bess showing something else she can do

Bess showing something else she can do

Where Mowcop Black Bess lives in Lancashire, outdoor turn-out or activity has been greatly curtailed due to horrendously wet weather.  The indoor school therefore is being heavily used for lunging and riding.  Normally Bess and her owner Eddie have the place to themselves at the early hour they usually use it.  But now they inevitably have company when Bess needs some exercise.

One day when they entered the arena, Bess was plodding along as ponies can sometimes do.  When Eddie sent her out to circle, though, she quickened her pace and started to use her whole body.  Eddie verbally asked for a trot, and Bess immediately responded, and then a verbal command to lope was similarly obeyed.  It was Bess’s reaction to the verbal command to stop, though, that got the attention of the other people in the area.  She immediately came to a halt and turned to face Eddie without extra steps or requests.  “How did you teach her to do that?”  Eddie answered, “I didn’t teach her.  She taught me that she could do it.”

Next Eddie put Bess back out on the circle and at 9 o’clock used the verbal command “Change.”  Bess sunk and spun in the opposite direction.  At 3 o’clock, he said “Change” again, and Bess quickly executed another change in direction.  By this time the other people in the area were paying close attention.  After several more executions, when Bess was again still, Eddie was asked, “Where can I learn to do that?”   Eddie responded, “No one can teach you to do this.  You have to have a relationship with your pony.”  When he got a quizzical look, he tried again.  “You have to have a relationship.  Your pony has to want to listen to you, to do what you ask, and to show you what they can do.  You have to listen to your pony too, and understand what they are communicating.  When you have two way communication, you can have a relationship, and when you have a relationship, what you can do with your pony is endless.”

Apparently word of Bess’s performance got around, because on another morning, Eddie and Bess were met by a horse and its owner who wanted to show what they could do.  Eddie politely watched, and when the demonstration was complete, Eddie suggested, “Now take the halter off.”  The equestrian was silent for a moment, then said, “What was that?”  Eddie repeated his suggestion, then said, “Do you want us to go first?”  When the reply was in the affirmative, Eddie silently said to Bess, “Don’t fail me now!”  And she didn’t, executing circles and changes of direction on request without any tack.  When it was the equestrian’s turn, it was clear that their partnership wasn’t strong enough to work at liberty.

We’ve all seen horses or ponies running in circles at liberty on their own, so we know they can do it.  Having a pony show us they’re willing to do it in cooperation with us is a statement about the relationship we have with them.  A gratifying statement indeed.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

The Partnered PonyBook Fell Pony ObservationsBess is also featured in a story about shepherding in the book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.  In addition, Bess is featured in a chapter in The Partnered Pony:  What’s Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, available internationally by clicking here.

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

A Quiet Stallion

Restar Mountain Shelley III and Guards ApolloI have ponied many ponies over the years in many combinations, but I’ve never ponied a stallion and a mare.  I’ve ponied a stud colt from a gelding and a stallion from a gelding and a gelding from a stallion, but I’ve never mixed breeding stock.  The dynamics between the ridden and led equine are always on my mind when I pony, to ensure the success and safety of the outing.  This past week I finally had a breeding stock combination whose inter-equine dynamics I felt could be successful, and I was right.  I rode the mare and led the stallion, and both were quiet and well-behaved.

For management reasons I’m moving my senior stallion Guards Apollo between paddocks at the start and end of each day.  I quickly tire of leading, and so Apollo gets ridden bareback with a halter and lead rope past the gate to the mare paddock and past the paddock containing my young stallion.  He’s good about staying quiet instead of returning calls from the ladies or prancing along the fence with the boys.  When we reach our destination where there is a mare awaiting us, he sometimes announces his arrival, so we have room for improvement in the quiet department.  Nonetheless, I’m pleased with how quiet Apollo is on this sort of outing.

When I was in Cumbria in 2015, I got to meet in person a stallion I have long admired at a distance.  He had great Fell Pony movement, which I expected, and very traditional conformation, which was definitely pleasing.  I was disappointed, though, to see that he seemed uninterested in people.  I had been warned that his temperament was the one question-mark about his quality, and indeed I left wondering if I still wanted his lines in my herd.  I was delighted, then, when I received word that after just a few weeks of ridden training, he was like a new pony, very quiet and compliant, with no signs of his previous standoffish behavior.

I have several Fell Pony colleagues who are able to breed their mares without owning their own stallion.  I will admit to being envious at times that they are able to move their breeding program along without the year-round management burden that comes with owning a stallion.  When I have asked, the answer is typically that a stallion may be a possibility in the future, if it’s quiet.  In the Fell Pony breed, of course, we are fortunate that most of our stallions are considered mellow and easy to handle, so this answer made me start pondering whether there is such a thing as a truly quiet stallion.

Thinking about my own stallions and about that stallion in Cumbria, I concluded that quiet stallions are both born and made.  The right temperament bred into a colt is incredibly important; I know colts whose sires were handfuls, and the colts turned out the same way.  In my experience, though, it is also the handling that the colt gets on the way to maturity that makes the mature stallion quiet or otherwise.  To own a quiet stallion probably means to buy a mature one or raise one that’s been properly bred.  The stallion I admire in Cumbria was a reminder the even something properly bred won’t be quiet without the right handling.

Ponying, at least the way I do it, is a reasonable test of how quiet a pony is, and I was pleased with how Apollo did.  My next aspiration in the ponying department is to ride the stallion and lead the mare.  That set of dynamics is an unknown that I will approach carefully, as I did the other mare/stallion ponying combination.  In the mean time, I’ll continue to enjoy my quiet stallion.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

Book Fell Pony ObservationsThere are numerous stories about Fell Pony stallions in the book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies, Natural Horsemanship