Jock Anderson shepherded on a Fell Pony in the 1970s in the Ettrick Valley of Scotland. He tells of his experience in The Horseman’s Word: Blacksmiths and Horsemanship in Twentieth Century Scotland by Timothy Neat. (1) Anderson watched the ponies go from being forbidden around sheep to being a necessity to being obsoleted by quad-bikes.
“I can remember my grandfather saying, very clearly, ‘Keep that pony away from the sheep!’ That was the conventional idea here – keep horses well away from the sheep but, with the numbers of shepherds going down, I began to realize how useful they could be for working the sheep in open country…” Anderson found that not only did the use of ponies save time, effort and money, it also brought satisfaction to the job.
Anderson even turned the use of ponies into a business. “What I used to do was this – go down into England and buy feral Fell ponies cheap, straight off the hill…. They were wild, they’d never been touched. What I looked for was a good strong horse, a well-formed horse. You didn’t need to worry about hardihood. They were all tough – it was always a question of the survival of the fittest on the Fells…” Anderson would bring back three to six ponies then break and train them for the shepherds. After they’d worked a year, he sold them on as trained riding ponies. “My children enjoyed them, the shepherds enjoyed them and across the country I had a demand I couldn’t satisfy…. Our ponies went away to be used by children and the disabled, some went for hunting, some for the Common Ridings, and some got retrained for carriage driving.”
Anderson’s ponies even caught the attention of the Duke of Edinburgh. “Two of my best black Fell ponies were bought by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, for his carriage racing team. Sir John Miller came to see me. He’s keeper of the Queen’s horses at Buckingham Palace. He stayed the whole afternoon and we spent a long evening talking. He was a grand old gentleman – couldn’t have been nicer. And before the morning came, we did a deal and those horses have done very well all over the country.”
Anderson also received an inquiry from the Diamond Riding Centre for the Disabled. The Centre was looking for “a big gentle pony that could carry a bit of weight. You see many of the Down’s Syndrome children could be very heavy.” He supplied a mare, and the Centre found her to be a marvel. “Over time I sent down two more fine geldings and that whole project throve.”
Anderson used Fell Ponies for thirty years and developed a deep appreciation for the breed. “I like the idea of there still being wild horses here in Britain…. The Cumberland and the Westmoreland men had been overseeing those ponies for generations. They let them run wild – because they know how evolution works and they know how to handle those horses. It was a way of life for them – and I became part of it. For many people culture is education and art galleries but for us, culture is what we do with our hands, what we do, make and experience every day of our lives.”
Over the years I’ve seen a few pictures of people shepherding on Fell Ponies. But as one long-time breeder told me, when her family used the ponies that way, there wasn’t time for taking photographs, so not many photos exist. My favorite, shown here, is more recent. It is of Mowcop Black Bess and Eddie McDonough, with Bess standing quietly while the herd of sheep runs in front of her. Eddie chooses to use a Fell, rather than a quad bike, and his working bearded collies to manage his small flock of Herdwick sheep.
With sincere thanks to intrepid researcher Eddie McDonough, always on the scent of Fell Pony lore.
(1) Neat, Timothy. The Horseman’s Word: Blacksmiths and Horsemanship in Twentieth Century Scotland . 2003. Especially pages 136-138.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2011