Trotting races, of course, feature in Fell Pony history. They were a popular sport in the nineteenth century, usually held in conjunction with shepherd’s meetings where lost sheep were retrieved at the end of the summer. Clive Richardson in his book The Fell Pony says: “The ponies were raced between stone markers laid out for the purpose, and were always ridden bareback with just a simple bridle or rope halter. The stone markers used for trotting races can still be seen on High Street, the old Roman green road which crosses the fells near Bampton….Fells were used so extensively for trotting that several strains were developed within the breed specifically for this purpose. Most notable were the ponies bred by the Dargue family of Bow Hall, Dufton, near Appleby in Westmorland….Other famous trotting Fells included Jack’s Delight, a stallion bred by the Relphs of Southernby, which at one time was advertised to trot ‘any Galloway in the world.’ …The Charlton family of Hexham also bred many fast trotting Fells including Little Jean, a dark brown mare of only 12.1hh, who, unlike the Dargue ponies, was a heavily built, old-fashioned type of pony but very active. She made light work of trotting a mile in three minutes carrying a ten-stone (64 kg) rider, and she became so famous that on one occasion when she was driven from Hexham to Brough Hill horse fair, a huge crowd turned out to witness her arrival…. The appearance of Standardbred trotting horses around the turn of the century from Manchester to Glasgow, which were considerably faster than the Fells, caused the demise of pony trotting in the north….” (1)
The image in Richardson’s book of the late Jim Bell riding Waverhead Magic easily comes to mind when I think of trotting races. Jim, of course, was riding in the traditional manner: bareback. I’ve never understood, though, how anyone could survive riding a trot bareback for any distance in a race. I had always assumed that people like Jim Bell were just better riders that I am. While that may still be the case, in the last few weeks I’ve discovered another possible explanation with the help of my stallion Guards Apollo.
Apollo has now been with me eight and a half years. When I’ve handled him on the ground during that time, I’ve noticed that when given a choice he prefers to trot at my side, almost in place, rather than walk. It’s a gait that I haven’t observed in my other Fell Ponies. I’ve recently gotten more serious about ridden work with Apollo. So far it has all been bareback, and in the past few weeks we’ve been trotting. It is the most amazing thing! It is so incredibly smooth! It is indeed a gait I could sit bareback for long periods. It’s an experience I’ve never had when riding my other Fell Ponies.
It’s now much easier for me to understand how Jim Bell looked so at ease riding his mare Waverhead Magic in bareback trotting races: she may have had the right trot for it. I have one reason to come to that conclusion: Magic is Apollo’s great-grandmother, so perhaps that’s where Apollo got his trot! I look forward to riding more Fell Ponies at the trot bareback and learning more about what made the breed a favorite in trotting races.
1) Richardson, Clive. The Fell Pony. J.A. Allen, 1991, pages 45-49.
Guards Apollo is available for breeding to select Fell Pony mares via frozen semen. Click here for more information.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014