We arrived at pasture early in the morning, and happily all the ponies were close by for the chore at hand. We needed to shift seven ponies – five mares and two foals – across the Michigan River to fresh grass. We had already set up water in the new pasture, and I had opened the necessary gate. I had also scouted a new route across the river since when the irrigation district installed a new headgate last fall, they roughened the river bottom where we used to cross, making the footing too tricky for this adventure.
After shutting another gate to keep the ponies close by, I interrupted my husband changing his boots. “You won’t need your wading boots; I don’t think you’ll get wet at all.” He looked at me incredulously. I explained that we wouldn’t be using any tack such as halters and lead ropes and that I thought I could manage shifting all seven ponies by myself. Perhaps he would take the camera to a midpoint to record our progress?
I changed into my wading boots and picked up the key tools of the morning’s chore: feed buckets containing my friends’ accustomed ration of vitamins and other supplements. I definitely had the attention of all seven ponies. My biggest challenge was going to be keeping noses out of the buckets until we had reached the new pasture.
The trickiest part of the new route, after getting through the first gate, was walking over some downed willow switches; I wasn’t sure if the ponies would pause at this strange footing and get distracted enough that they wouldn’t continue to follow me. No worries, it turned out. The branches cracked as we all walked over them and we continued through the opening in the willow thicket that I had scouted, and we approached the edge of the river.
Because we are in the headwaters of the North Platte, the tributary we were crossing was about fifty feet wide and at this time of year just a foot deep where we were passing. It was, though, the first time the ponies had encountered the river this year, and the first time ever for the two foals to enter running water. I was pleased, then, when I heard lots of splashing behind me. I was also pleased that my chosen route across the river was easy for me to navigate with buckets in my hands; in the past I’ve occasionally slipped and needed to catch myself on a nearby pony.
With lots of splashing, ponies and I climbed up onto the far bank. Once I was on flat ground, I paused long enough to take role. I couldn’t pause too long, of course, or there’d be noses in buckets too soon! I was short one pony; I could hear my senior mare Sleddale Rose Beauty calling from the far side of the river, but I quickly concluded that going back for her later was the best plan. All had gone so quickly and so well so far, in fact, that we’d beat my husband to the photo rendez-vous, and he was only able to record our retreat into the distance!
Four mares, two foals, and I made quick work of crossing a small grassy area, then splashed through a small slough, then crossed another grassy area before passing through the gate into the eastern-most pasture. I quickly put buckets under noses to hold my friends in place while I shut the gate behind them. I could still hear Beauty calling, so I began calling for her in return as I headed in her direction. I watched from a distance as my husband haltered her and after a few moments I took the business end of the lead rope and led Beauty to the east. We stopped outside the pasture for her to have her bucket, then I reunited her with the herd as they all began nipping the tops off the belly-deep grass.
As I headed back to the starting point to get into dry footwear, I admit to savoring the team accomplishment. Shifting seven ponies across a river and through an intervening pasture with only minimal need of halter and lead rope was not only incredibly efficient, it was a thrill. I of course work ponies in harness regularly, and there is indeed a thrill that comes from accomplishing work together in that way. The thrill that came from ‘harnessing’ my ponies to accomplish a goal without any harness at all was of a different character but a thrill nonetheless. Such a blessing to share life with these ponies.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014
There are numerous stories about Fell Ponies and natural water in the book A Humbling Experience, available internationally by clicking here.