More than once I have seen three-year-old Fell Ponies for sale that have been ‘lightly started.’ Usually the advertisement includes a picture of the pony being ridden at a canter. While I don’t think cantering a three year old under saddle is appropriate, I do now have a better appreciation for the human motivation.
I have three three-year-olds here. One was born here and one has been here since before its first birthday. The third was raised in a more temperate climate and arrived just six weeks ago. The two that have been here the longest in no way look physically mature. The newest arrival, on the other hand, is tall and well fleshed and looks, to my eye, older than she is. My eye, of course, has been calibrated by the many three year olds that have been raised here (more than a dozen.)
Three year olds, in my experience, are mentally mature enough for more extensive training than they were the previous year. The contrast between two and three year olds, for someone who’s been waiting for their pony to mature, is striking. My three year olds, though, have never looked physically ready for mounting, so I’ve always engaged them in more stimulating groundwork instead.
I’m reminded of something the late Thomas Capstick of the Murthwaite stud once said: that he didn’t breed his fillies until they were four because winters on the fell were just too hard on them to both grow up and carry a foal. Most breeders start a filly’s reproductive life at three, and some even breed two year olds. While I have gotten away with breeding three-year-olds in my challenging climate, I also keep a close and watchful eye on them to make sure they have the support they need to continue to mature while also carrying a new life. This year for the first time I’m not breeding a three year old that I normally would because she doesn’t seem physically mature enough.
The newly arrived three year old is an interesting contrast. Her height and flesh make her look more mature than she is, and I suspect many Fell Pony three-year-olds raised away from the fells look similar. With her size and her three-year-old’s increased interest in doing things with people, I can see the temptation to start her under saddle. I know, though, that a three year old isn’t a mature-enough pony in any way that really matters for saddle work, so I won’t give into the temptation.
I personally believe that it’s best for the pony as well as all the pony’s subsequent owners for us humans to not be tempted by a three year old. Waiting for more physical maturity before carrying weight ensures the pony a longer and healthier working life. I understand the temptation to put a three year old under saddle, especially given the investment often required to purchase a Fell Pony. I wholeheartedly, however, urge patience.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016
You’ll find more stories like this one in the books What an Honor: A Dozen Years with Fell Ponies and The Partnered Pony: What’s Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines. Both are available internationally on Amazon. You can also click on the pictures or titles to purchase them directly from the publisher.