It was my seven month old Willowtrail Storm Princess that pointed out that I have something new on my hands. She started appearing at the fence in a way that seemed odd. I then realized it was her smaller size and age that made her behavior seem unusual, and then she made me laugh! Princess was mimicking the older ponies in the paddock!
What Princess has pointed out to me is that I have five mares in a paddock for the first time. I’ve had herds with five females before but never without some male energy thrown in. My version of the old equine wisdom is “Ask a gelding, tell a stallion, have a conversation with a mare.” I’m having five conversations these days every time I enter the turnout. (I have seen versions of this equine wisdom where the mares and stallions are reversed, but it’s been my experience with ponies that stallions are the more cooperative of the breeding stock!)
This particular herd is led by Sleddale Rose Beauty, my oldest mare and longest Fell Pony companion. Beauty and I have a ritual greeting. She asks me politely for a treat by approaching and then cocking her head just so. I can’t refuse her request so she gets her reward. After Princess pointed out to me that I have a novel pony grouping, I’ve started watching her more closely. She mimics Beauty in pushing other ponies around (her younger brother is the only one she can move), and she tries to mimic Beauty’s greeting, cocking her head up. Seeing a youngster attempt this posture makes me laugh!
The other mares in the herd also come to greet me, also wanting treats. Unlike Beauty, though, they have to do more than be polite to get a reward. This is where the ‘conversation’ begins. They ask for a treat. I ask for something in return. If they respond correctly, I respond with a treat. For instance, Willowtrail Wild Rose will approach and pump her head up and down, asking for a treat. I ask her to follow me, sometimes at a trot, and then stop when I stop. If she complies, she gets a treat. Or in the evening when Princess gets a special bucket of feed, Willowtrail Mountain Honey will approach, wanting something special to eat, too. I ask her to follow me away from Princess back to a pile of hay, and when she complies, she gets a treat.
Most mornings I tie the four oldest ponies to the fence before giving them their feed buckets. This routine allows for a more focused conversation. I work with Honey, for instance, on backing when I shake the lead rope; when she complies, I give her a treat. I work with Rose by riding a weaving pattern amongst piles of hay before giving her a treat. I have commenced Bowthorne Matty’s ridden work by riding from fence to hay, giving her a treat at our destination. Beauty, of course, just gets a treat. While Princess doesn’t get treats, she does get to have a conversation with me. Before she gets her bucket of feed, she has to back up and stand politely.
When I am in a hurry or out of treats or not feeling like having a conversation, entering the turnout is an uncomfortable undertaking. I am immediately approached by five mares wanting conversation. It’s an honor, actually, to have them asking to ‘speak’ with me. I have one gelding right now that provides a contrast; true to that equine wisdom, he’s willing to do what I ask but isn’t interested in a conversation. At those times when I don’t want to be bothered with a conversation, I really appreciate going off with him. Most of the time, though, it’s great fun having five conversations!
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014
If you enjoy stories like this one, you might also enjoy the books A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies and What an Honor: A Dozen Years with Fell Ponies, available internationally by clicking here.