Working Temperament

Being able to stand still when the teamster is absent is an important skill in work ponies

When I started working ponies in harness, my first pony took to it naturally, which inspired me to get a second.  That second pony, too, went to work easily.  When I learned of Fell Ponies, I looked the breed up in my horse book and saw that they were traditionally used for work, too, so I purchased two Fells.  My first mare, though, did not take to harness work, and I learned later that she had colicked the first time she’d been put in harness.  I began to realize that working temperament wasn’t necessarily innate to working breeds.  Yet no one seemed to be talking about it.

Of course I eventually realized that no one was talking about it because very few people work ponies in harness, so very few people have first-hand experience with the topic.  An article in the recent issue of Driving Digest magazine therefore caught my attention.  Hardy Zantke notes that “draft horses these days are bred… more spirited – and less worked – than in the old days.” (1)  Zantke’s article recounts what he saw in his grandfather’s drayage business that used draft horses for delivery.  The horses were expected to ‘stand rock solid’ at delivery stops, often unattended when their teamster needed to be absent for a short period of time.  “[Draft horses] these days are no longer bred for heavy long pulling work but… more for stylish show action, where the looks count and no longer the ability to work.” (2)

I appreciated Zantke’s detailed description in his article of what was expected of his grandfather’s horses because it parallels what I expect of my working ponies.  Mostly, though, I appreciated knowing that I wasn’t the only one who was seeing a difference in the working breeds.  I especially appreciated knowing that someone else thinks breeders are selecting for things other than working temperament.

Several months ago I got an email from a distraught Fell Pony owner.  Like me she had made an assumption about the temperament of the breed, and she had acquired a pony that didn’t meet her expectations at all.  I endorsed her desire to sell the pony, which she subsequently did.  As a breeder, it was very sad for me – though not unexpected given my own experience – that someone interested in the breed had had their hopes dashed.

Perhaps as I did, people who want to get into breeding make the assumption that since they’ve chosen a working breed, appropriate temperament is the easy part.  They then feel they can focus on conformation and perhaps even aesthetic choices like hair, color, or markings when it comes to breeding decisions.  Unfortunately, I’ve learned that working temperament must be selected for or it will be lost.  And since few people work ponies, or draft horses for that matter, there aren’t many people who can make informed breeding decisions about working temperament.

Yesterday I completed a survey about horsemanship goals.  One question was “What is standing in the way of you accomplishing your horsemanship goals?”  While I gave the answer that most people did – not enough time – I realized in hindsight that the honest answer is a bit more complicated.  My goal is to work in harness a Fell Pony that I have bred.  I have already trained a pony to harness, so I have the basic skill set in the training department that I need.  And I was once offered a Fell Pony that already works, so I could have accomplished my goal if I’d been willing to compromise on the breeding part.  Instead, I remain determined to select for working temperament so I can bring along one of my own.

I know that with adequate time and training skill, any Fell Pony can be trained to work.  My goal is to breed a pony that is so easy to train and takes so little time to train that they seem born to work like my first two ponies were.  I know I’m close because a pony I’ve bred just started his harness work.  His owner says he took to it like he already knew what to do.  He’s a half-Fell out of my first (non-Fell) work pony, and his owner is thrilled with him, which in turn of course thrills me.

In his article, Hardy Zantke describes how important time was to the work ethic of the horses in his grandfather’s stable.  My first answer to that survey question about obstacles to my horsemanship goals probably wasn’t far off.  However, a truer answer to that survey question was probably ‘patience,’ a characteristic I could indeed use more of, especially when it comes to breeding the working temperament I want in Fell Ponies!

1)      Zantke, Hardy.  “From Behind My Splinterbar,” Driving Digest, Issue 180, November/December 2012, p.  25.
2)      Zantke, p. 24.

(c) Jenifer Morrissey, 2012

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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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