Got Character?

My character, Lily

The other day I watched two videos of exquisite harmony between horse and handler.  The human seemed to guide their equine partner through maneuvers with ease, with their equine partner being totally tuned in and engaged with what was going on.  So I went out to get my Fell Pony mare Lily to see if we could progress towards that magnificent goal of harmony.  I know we are capable of it; occasionally, especially when we’re playing at liberty, I get hints of it.  Each day we’ve been together of late, we’ve been getting closer to at least a rudimentary level.  With visions of harmonious equine partners in my head, I approached Lily’s paddock.  Rather than a willing pony partner, though, what met me at the gate was a character.

I know people who have Fells that are angels (see, for instance, my article “Angels and Otherwise”), but my journey with the breed was not to start that way.  My first Fell, Lily’s mother, also has loads of character.  Lily was my third Fell; fortunately her father, #2, wasn’t quite so full in the character department.

Lily’s character was on display in numerous ways.  I had arrived at the paddock with a plastic children’s snow sled in which I had transported a propane bottle, some tools, and some tack.  When I took Lily out of the paddock, she wanted to investigate the sled.  I have made a habit of rewarding her for such curiosity to build her confidence around strange objects.  But I was cold and in a hurry, so I didn’t let her investigate for very long.  In hindsight, I realize this was her first display of character, expressing her curiosity and suggesting her own agenda.

We headed up to the round pen, stopping at the tack room in the trailer to get the bareback pad.  I ‘led’ her at liberty (she carried her own lead rope) from the trailer to the round pen gate, and she mirrored my transitions from walk to trot to walk again.  When we got into the round pen, though, the second display of character manifested.  She tossed her head and asked for a treat, suggesting she knew she had done well.

About this time, snow started falling, and Lily’s spirits seemed to rise as the flakes descended.  Lily wouldn’t stand still for mounting, which is pretty unusual for her.  After backing her up and bringing her forward on the lead rope a few times (YoYo game in the parlance of Parelli Natural Horsemanship), she was content to stand for me to get on.  She then executed a few maneuvers better than the last time I rode her, which surprised me after her antics.

After our very short session in the round pen (due to the frigid temperature), we headed back down the driveway. I again had her at liberty (carrying her own lead rope), and we did some walking sideways.  We’ve done this before on numerous occasions, but it had been awhile, and I was pleased that she was so willing.  And her expressiveness made me laugh.  “I did what you wanted, right?  So I think I deserve a treat!”  What a character!

When we got back to the sled, I let Lily explore it more thoroughly.  She sniffed and looked and sniffed some more.  After a few minutes, I threw a treat into the sled to reward her curiosity.  In hindsight I’m glad I did, because the next thing she did was to step on the edge of the sled, which flipped it into the air.  Lily, almost in a single leap, withdrew about twenty feet, turning and facing the sled and the strewn contents.

After I’d retrieved the contents, I encouraged Lily to approach the sled in its new location.  It seemed an important thing to do to finish what she had started.  In the past it has taken a lot of effort to get Lily to approach something that has scared her.  So I was very pleased that she only thought about it for a few seconds before following my lead and approaching the sled.  She went back to sniffing it as before, and she retrieved the treat that I threw in it.

I’ve had the privilege of speaking recently with Bob and Sarah Charlton.  Bob is a fourth generation breeder of the Linnel Fell Ponies in England.  I loved a comment he made that summed up Fell Pony character quite succinctly:  “They’re nicely naughty at times.”  Sarah described her personal experience with her favorite mare’s character by saying that the two of them have conversations about whose idea is better about opening a gate!

I’ve recently been speaking with a trainer looking for a Fell for a client.  The client is a novice when it comes to horses and is drawn to Fells more from a romantic than a practical standpoint.  I told the trainer that a good match between pony and person is critically important to me.  In my experience, most Fells are characters, which can be challenging for novice horse people.  I told the trainer that her client needed to meet the Fell in person that she was considering buying so that she could see if there was a natural connection between them.  Without that connection, a match made in heaven between horse and human would be hard to come by, and I feared for the Fell’s future when it began to express its character to a green horsewoman.

While I may wish for an angel in a Fell Pony costume, I apparently was meant to engage instead with characters like Lily.  Fortunately, she makes me laugh on a regular basis when she suggests her own agenda despite what I might want.  It will take us longer, perhaps, to achieve that lofty goal of harmony, but when we get there, the reward will be much greater than if I’d worked with an angel all along. In the meantime, I’m assured of a lot of laughter.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2011

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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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