My Fell Pony mare Willowtrail Wild Rose and I were walking through the woods during pack-pony training. It was a rare outing when we were without the eyes, ears, and nose of a canine to accompany us. I rely on the dogs to give me early warning of anything animate. On this day it was up to Rose to do that.
She came to a sudden stop with her head up and ears pricked. I followed her line of sight and saw an enormous bull moose watching us. It’s one thing to see a cow and calf with their somewhat understandable bodies. This bull’s antlers were anything but ordinary looking, extending more than two feet to either side of his head and swept up dramatically. When he swung his head, there was a lot more in motion than when a cow moose does something similar. Rose calmly stood watching, and I encouraged the big guy to go elsewhere, which he seemed only too happy to do. We continued our training walk uneventfully.
Another day I was working Rose in harness, moving manure to the compost pile. As we passed a small hill and a tree, obscuring our vision to the left, a chipmunk came from that direction and ran right under Rose’s nose as she was walking, followed almost immediately by my young dog at full speed. Rose didn’t alter her pace or her body in any way, just kept focusing on the task at hand.
I had a Fell Pony here once who was quite a contrast to the level-headedness that I’ve come to expect from my ponies. That pony on two different occasions was sufficiently startled by the appearance of wildlife to alter the fence to which they were tied. Taking that pony on a walk through the woods was out of the question. Even a walk on the driveway required extreme caution since I never knew what might cause a spook or shy, a rear or a buck. That poor pony was on edge the entire duration of its stay here. I had to send it away for its own good.
I have one paddock that no longer has trees in it, so the shed there is an important refuge from summer sun or hail or other weather. The shed has a stall-type door and requires a step up through the narrow opening onto a wooden floor. When I put the spooky pony in that paddock, that pony never set foot in that shed despite intense sun on one occasion and hail on another. I of course moved that pony to different accommodations in hopes it would choose to protect itself from adverse weather. In contrast, a Fell Pony weanling, when in the treeless paddock, entered that shed willingly on sunny days. So did her three-year-old sister on her first time in that paddock when she was curious why I had gone inside the shed. (To replenish minerals was the answer).
Fell Ponies are one of Britain’s mountain and moorland breeds, and I’ve always assumed that mountain pony sense was a given in a Fell Pony. I need ponies here to have that sense, for my own safety as their handler as well as theirs. There are just too many things that can happen, whether passing a bull moose, being passed by a chipmunk, or getting hailed on suddenly during a thunderstorm. The spooky pony taught me that mountain pony sense isn’t a given after all. On the contrary, it’s something I at least must select for and preserve.
A friend told me once that the most important things about a pony can’t be seen in a photograph. On this side of the pond, and especially where I live, I see many more Fell Ponies in photographs than in person. Mountain pony sense, the ability to process calmly the unusual things that come with mountain living, is one of those things that can’t be seen in a photograph. How I evaluate Fell Ponies has been forever changed now that I know mountain pony sense isn’t always present despite the mountain and moorland heritage of these ponies. I’ve come to value it even more now that I know not all Fell Ponies have it.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016
For more about what makes a Fell Pony special, consider the book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard and Breeding, available internationally by clicking on the title or the book cover.