When we steward rare breeds of livestock, we are constantly aware of potentially opposing tensions. On the one hand, we must pay attention to the market since recovering rare breeds is most successful when their economics make sense. On the other hand, we must pay attention to tradition to make sure we are conserving what makes our rare breed unique.
In the Fell Pony, markings and feather are two characteristics often mentioned in the context of this market vs. tradition tension. Markings used to be more common while today solid color ponies are preferred. Feather on ponies in historic photos is decidedly less voluminous than in many ponies shown today. Even the predominant color of the breed has changed: brown ponies used to dominate and now black ones do. Market demand is said to have driven the increase in solid color, profusely feathered black ponies.
Christine Morton of the Lownthwaite stud described one reason why markings were once preferred. In her essay in the book Fell Diamonds, speaking about her grandfather’s time, she said “[Ponies], especially mares, with white markings were more valuable because when mated with a coloured stallion they were more likely to throw a coloured foal, an animal favoured by the travelling people as they were less likely to be commandeered for Army remounts….”(1) Christine also reports her grandfather saying “all feather and no foot.” Christine is of the opinion “that he would have disapproved of the modern fashion for a profusion of feather.” (2) Personally, I suspect that feather may have been less valued when owners did their own hoof trimming. It’s much more challenging to see the status of a foot when it’s hidden by lots of hair!
I am occasionally contacted by clients interested in a Fell Pony for dressage. This is another area where the market vs. tradition tension manifests. Usually it is the length, set, and shape of the neck that is a topic of conversation. A particular pony that had already received ribbons at in-hand dressage shows was rejected by a dressage enthusiast because his neck was shorter than a trainer felt appropriate. There’s no question that the Fells I’ve seen do well in dressage tend more to the riding pony rather than mountain and moorland pony end of the conformation spectrum that is present in the breed today. On the other hand, I’m reminded of Bill Potter’s comment on the Fell Pony Breeders’ Association video: “A lot of people have forgot about the little word ‘pony.’ These are ponies, not horses.” (2) Back to the other hand, I have no doubt that the Fell Pony’s recovery from endangered status is due in part to its successes in the show ring.
Regarding the market vs. tradition tension, Christine concluded in her Fell Diamonds essay that market forces will always rule. “[The] breeder of livestock is always at the mercy of his wallet – there is after all no future in producing goods which no one will purchase. Therefore I conclude that the future of the Fell Pony lies not with the breeders but with the consumers; breeders will breed whatever the consumer wishes to buy.” (3)
Rather than just react to market forces, however, I think when stewarding a rare breed it’s necessary to think about markets differently. Perhaps it’s from my experience in the high tech industry that I get this attitude. I worked for companies where it was and still is common to invent products and then convince consumers that they need them rather than just give consumers what they say they want. In simple terms, we create markets rather than let markets dictate our products. By articulating what makes the Fell Pony both unique and useful, I believe it’s possible to find consumers who want what the Fell Pony is already rather than what it might be changed into. Indeed I have heard from many people who appreciate the breed for its history and its traditions after they have had a chance to learn about them.
A colleague contacted me about the dynamic tension between market and tradition. They asked if ‘we’re doing enough’ to protect the traditional Fell Pony. I told them I would think about the question and get back to them. My husband, though, had an immediate response based on his many years of dealing with the tension between market and what’s right in his profession. “It only matters what you personally feel, that you are doing what you are called to do. You can’t do better than that.” He is right, of course. We can only do what we can do and do it to the best of our ability. The Fell Pony we have today is the result of many people doing what they thought best with their ponies. I’m thankful for what they did and for the inspiration it has given me to do what I do. It’s my hope that my efforts and those of the many other stewards will see the breed well into the future.
- Morton, Sarah Christine. “Sunday Talk – Memories of Fell Ponies,” Fell Diamonds: celebrating 90 years of the Fell Pony Society 1922-2012. Daw Bank, Greenholme, Cumbria: Jackdaw E Books, 2013, p. 19
- Morton, p. 20.
- Potter, Bill in Endangered Species – Conversation with Bill Potter, produced by Tom Lloyd, Dreamtime Film, 2011 at https://vimeo.com/13389107
- Morton, p. 20
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015
“Dynamic Tension 1” is a chapter in the book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.