Fell Ponies United

I know a person who quit the Fell Pony breed because she felt personally attacked by another Fell Pony owner.  I had a similar horrible experience a few years into my Fell Pony career.  I was devastated to be attacked by someone I thought of as a mentor.  I thought we were united in a common purpose:  the Fell Pony.  I learned there is always room for building more common ground.

The word ‘type’ seems to be a fighting word in our breed.  Various authorities on Fell Ponies define Cumberland types, riding types, modern types, and traditional types. (1)  My background in the draft horse world has taught me about show types and work types, and because I have seen representatives of both, I know the words have meaning.  Even the Fell Pony Society contributes to the vocabulary by hosting a class for best ridden type at the Breed Show.

To try to get some clarity about all these types, I’ve queried a number of Fell Pony judges over the years.  They have been united in their answer:  there is only one type, the true Fell Pony.   They often then say that the breed standard defines that type. 

It doesn’t take much looking around in the Fell Pony world, however, to see different types of Fell Ponies.    I’ve looked at thousands of photographs of Fell Ponies and seen hundreds in the flesh, and there is no doubt that Fell Ponies vary in appearance.  Breeders, including some who are judges, often refer to different types when describing their own herds. (2)  I have personally defined the ‘old type’ to describe what I am breeding.  It is important for breeders to have a breeding goal, and the use of the word ‘type’ seems to help many of us describe what we are trying to do.  So how can our judges proclaim that there is only one type of Fell Pony when most of the rest of us see and refer to different types?  How are we supposed to reconcile what the judges are telling us with what we see with our own eyes? 

If, as the judges insist, the breed standard is the authority that defines the only acceptable type of Fell Pony, then how is it that we still have a variety of types within the breed?  For instance, when I look at the ponies that these judges breed themselves, even they vary noticeably in appearance.  I’ve had to conclude that the breed standard is broad enough to encompass all of the variations that some call ‘type.’  At the same time, each judge has a firm opinion about what correct type looks like, and he or she judges the ponies they see accordingly. 

In the end, our breed is united by the breed standard and those who assess ponies relative to it.  In addition to judges, this includes breeders, too, since we choose our own breeding stock to produce the ponies of the future.  We are united by the breed standard, yet we all apply it to the ponies in our lives in our own way.

I’ve recently been pondering the historic work of our breed and its impact on our ponies.  My study has led me to conclude that versatility is a hallmark of the Fell Pony.  More than one story has been told of a single pony being ridden for shepherding, driven to market, put to a sledge, and loaded with stacks of hay to take to hill pastures.  Having all these uses united in a single pony speaks volumes about the movement, conformation, temperament, and hardiness that are such a part of our breed.  This versatility united in a single pony is, in my mind, the breed standard made manifest.  I think it’s possible to unite the various ‘types’ people talk about in the breed by ensuring that each and every Fell Pony is capable of the versatility of the past, regardless of type and regardless of whether they ever actually do the work or not.  Understanding these historic uses has helped me better interpret the breed standard and then breed a better Fell Pony. 

Whenever I talk to a judge or fellow breeder, I try to understand their intent with the breed.  If they are engaged with the mission statement of the Fell Pony Society and if they are committed to ongoing study of the breed standard, then I am inclined to think that the breed is being well-served.  There is no doubt that I would like to see people engage more with the mission statement and the breed standard than they do, but we all bring our own strengths and our own perspectives to our work with this breed. 

If people leave this breed because they have felt attacked by another Fell Pony enthusiast, then that is cause for concern.  I know someone who came to our breed from another to get away from such behavior.  We all need to recognize we have common ground and get away from aggressive behavior so that we can retain people who can provide a good home and a practical use for a pony.  If judges say there is only one type of Fell Pony, but the rest of us see variations amongst the ponies in the breed, then I see a need for building some common ground.  It is my hope that we can all see our breed broadly enough to respect each person’s perspective and remain united by our common purpose:  the Fell Pony.

1)      See for instance Sue Millard’s book Hoofprints in Eden on page 115 regarding the Cumberland and riding types.  See comments of Cumbrian breeders about traditional and modern types on my website .
(2)      See for instance the “Performance Trials” section of the Fell Pony Society DVD where Bob Charlton indicates that he breeds the riding type.


© Jenifer Morrissey, 2011


About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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